Buffets are a popular way to celebrate the holidays. Ham, turkey, stuffing, and side dishes, all waiting for your loved ones to dig in. But if you leave foods out for long periods of time, you’re inviting guests you don’t want at the party: foodborne bacteria that could cause illness. When you have dishes or dips sitting out over a several-hour-timespan, with guests returning for second helpings, there’s plenty of time for bacteria to thrive and multiply.
Even before you set out the buffet, food that’s been mishandled in the preparation, or not cooked to sufficient temperatures, can also pose a danger.
So while you may already know the food safety basics—keep it clean and hot (or cold)— even seasoned cooks can use a refresher during the holiday hosting season. Focus on these four food-safety rules:
- Clean. Always wash your hands before and after handling food. Make sure kids have clean hands before they eat or line up at the buffet and after visiting the loo. And use hot soapy water to clean cooking equipment, utensils and kitchen surfaces, too.
- Separate. Always separate meat and produce. You can even opt for colored cutting boards and plates to ensure safe separation. At the party, keep an eye on the buffet as items begin to deplete. Rather than periodically top off a bowl of mashed potatoes, for example, replace it with a new batch in a clean bowl. That way, there’s no risk of mixing fresh foods with their possibly tainted counterparts.
- Cook. You can’t determine whether meats are “done” by color alone. And you can’t assume a dish is safe to eat because it was cooked for the recommended time. You need to insert a food thermometer into the appropriate location on the bird, chop, roast or patty. There are a variety of apps and charts to help. The simple cheat sheet: Beef, pork, lamb, veal and chops should reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees before removing the meat from the oven; ground beef, pork, lamb and veal should reach an internal temp of 160 degrees; and poultry should reach a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees.
- Chill. Never leave food out for more than two hours, and when it’s time to store the leftovers, divide cooked foods into shallow containers. (Food in big containers takes longer to cool.) Then place them in the refrigerator. Food that’s evenly and quickly cooled reduces opportunities for bacteria to grow.
Sadly, you can’t rely on the sniff test to determine whether your holiday foods are safe to devour. Bacteria-laden food doesn’t necessarily look or smell bad. So when you’re in doubt, throw it out. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold and remember it’s always better to be safe than invite unwanted guests in the form of foodborne pathogens to your party.